Last year the British media was rocked by the phone hacking scandal, when it was discovered that journalists had been listening to people’s phone calls and accessing their voicemails. From the outset the accusations were serious, and it was clear that there were going to be serious repercussions as a result of what had happened. But watching the story develop it really seemed to turn when it was discovered that journalists had accessed the phone of Milly Dowler, a teenager killed in 2002. This was not a celebrity or a politician who was having their right to privacy ignored, it was a normal family who had suffered the misfortune of their daughter’s abduction and subsequent murder. The outrage at this revelation eventually led to the closure of the News of the World newspaper.
Privacy is a right protected by the law, and it is also a right protected in this week’s Torah portion. Ki Tetzeh is filled with many commandments, but as it moves to the subject of the poor and disadvantaged in society its first concern is with their right to privacy.
Following from laws relating to leprosy it states: “When you make any kind of loan to your neighbor, you may not go into his house to claim what he is offering as security” (Deuteronomy 24:10). This is not to say that a security could not be taken, but rather it reminds us that the home remained the private domain of the person. The Torah specifies: “You must stand outside and the person to whom you are making the loan will bring out to you what he is offering as security” (Deuteronomy 24:11). While one can imagine that poverty had robbed this person of many rights, the Torah ensured that his or her privacy was still respected.
Privacy was also extended to the way in which the society was to support the poor amongst them. Rather than collecting a portion of the harvest and distributing it to those in need the Torah states: “Whenever you reap your harvest in your field and leave some unraked grain there, you must not return to get it; it should go to the resident foreigner, orphan, and the widow so that Adonai your God may bless all the work you do” (Deuteronomy 24:19). This instruction was extended so that the beating of olive trees and the gathering of grapes would only happen once, with the remainder left for the poor (Deuteronomy 24:20-21).
This system not only gave those in need an element of independence, collecting their own food; it also allowed them to maintain some semblance of privacy, as they were saved from asking someone else for a handout. This imperative was developed by Maimonides in his Ladder of Tzedakah, which stresses the importance of the giver and receiver ideally not knowing each other, protecting their privacy.
When dealing with the subject of poverty one would expect the focus to almost exclusively be on the need to support those in need, but the Torah reminds us that there is also an appropriate way in which this must be done. The Torah protects the privacy of the poor and in so doing allows them to maintain a sense of dignity, despite their difficult situation. It reminds us that the right to privacy extends to everyone in society, regardless of their financial situation or economic difficulties.
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